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Chemical Weapons

pnidaisygirl5In January 2015, researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center received a $1.9 million grant to develop a new therapy to protect military members from nerve agent exposure. It would pleasure me to have that therapy goodie in my supply kit.

More good news. Last week AP’s Dan Elliott reported that “…The Pueblo Chemical Depot in southern Colorado plans to start neutralizing 2,600 tons of aging mustard agent in March as the U.S. moves toward complying with a 1997 treaty banning all chemical weapons….” (;_ylt=A0LEVi4BXNpUjWYAe_UnnIlQ )

A celebration is in order. Nerve agents are downright frightening and the death served up by a nerve agent bioweapon is ugly. Nerve agents are insecticides on steroids. There is no pretty corpse to remember. People and animals affected by such a weapon cannot breath, lose control of their bodily functions and die in terrible agony. Give me a good old fashion, belt and suspenders nuke anytime.

Nuclear war is terrifying. Haunting negative images of children picking flowers are engraved forever on the walls of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and elicit a primal response from all who see them. You-Tube videos capture the inconceivable power released during nuclear and thermonuclear events. Audiences are awed and aghast. Over the years, extensive multi-media coverage resulted in a hue and cry of outrage and demands that nuclear weapons be outlawed. The echoes of the fury against nukes around the world have made a difference. Pity the same can’t be said for nerve agents.

Greenpeace had nerve agents on its agenda in the 1990s, but not for the reasons we might think. I recall the Greenpeace invasion of Johnston Island came during the golden hour, shortly after the sun rose bringing the gift of light with just the right hardness for perfect photography. The Greenpeace team was sailing to French Polynesia.

The ship stopped by the island just long enough to drop a small boat in the water, come ashore, and take some good shots of Greenpeace protestors holding signs expressing the party line on the JACADS plant. JACADS is an acronym for the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System. Johnston Island is in the North Pacific Ocean about 717 nm southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii, about one-third of the way from Hawaii to the Marshall Islands.  The report I received in Honolulu said the ‘protest’ lasted maybe a half an hour.

Strange that the destruction of nerve agents like GB, VX and mustard gas should stir protests. Greenpeace, and many others, did not like incineration, the technology being used at JACADS. But, then again, it seemed that any technology that was offered to destroy the agents was hated by some protest group or other. Incineration, cryo-fracturing, they all worked and they all had drawbacks. At operational completion, the JACADS plant eliminated over 2,000 tons of nerve agents and that is a very good thing.

Mankind appears to be committed and lemmings to eternal cycles of self-destruction through global and local war. Back in the day, hominids used rocks and sticks to do each other in. We’ve graduated to chemical concoctions and nuclear bombs. While we humans can and have fought over everything from romantic rivalries to resources, the big wars break out when power brokers manipulate opposing ideas and ideals held by two or more populations. Beware the purveyor of noble ideas. As soon as I hear the evangelizing of noble ideas to the exclusion of other points-of-view, I become very afraid.  While past preachers of noble ideas, like communism, democracy, Christianity, and Islam, sat safely on the sidelines, millions fought and died. Make no mistake they still do.

Fighting wars requires bigger and better rocks and sticks. Chemical weapons came about because conventional bombs and nuclear weapons are messy.  They are excellent at killing lots of people both quickly and slowly but everything in the blast radius is also blown to bits. Wouldn’t it be sweet if the people could just go away while preserving all that lovely investment in infrastructure? Make it so! And we, the scientists, engineers, and technicians, made it so.

Of the three classes of chemical weapons, GB, VX, and mustard gas, destroyed in the JACADS plant, only mustard gas came from WWI.  While mustard gas was first weaponized and used in war during WWI, it was actually developed during the 1800s. Chlorine was also used during WWI but the big killer, by a two to one margin, was mustard gas.

Introduced to the battle field in 1917, the German Army used the nearly odorless, lethal Mustard Gas, Yperite, to great advantage.  The gas required twelve hours to take effect and only a small amount of the Yperite was required for each artillery shell. Once in the soil, mustard gas reduces in potency but remains active for several years. Decades after testing mustard gas in Australia some prisoners were sent onto the test site to grub and clear. They experienced blistering from the residual undisturbed mustard gas in the dirt.

Death from exposure to mustard gas isn’t fast or easy. Death is a welcome relief after several weeks of suffering. Vera Brittain, a nurse during WWI, wrote of the horror in her autobiography, Testament of Youth [1]: “I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.” I actually saw an accidental dilute mustard gas exposure on Johnston Atoll-very ugly, painful blisters.

VX, on the other hand, is a super-pesticide and a horrific weapon. A tiny drop, an amount less than can be held on the head of a pin, of this colorless and odorless liquid is lethal. Cyanide gas and potassium cyanide become pikers next to VX, which is over 20 times more deadly. VX is a sticky, heavy liquid/gas that once dispersed snakes its deadly way just above ground level. Once it gets on a surface, it is very tough to get off. The good news, if any, is that under the right weather conditions—cool and humid—VX will degrade quickly, like water. If the weather is hot and humid, however, VX lasts much longer and evaporates like motor oil. I think the best place to be during a VX event is Seattle, Washington in the depths of winter.

Like any pesticide, exposure is through the skin, eyes, or breathing. The degree to which any person may be affected depends on the amount and time of exposure. Clothing, surfaces, even using a pencil or sitting at a desk many hours after an attack, can expose and spread the agent further. VX breaks down slowly resulting in a cumulative effect. According to the CDC[2]: “All the nerve agents cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of the chemical that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.”

The good news, if there is such a thing for nerve agents, is a person exposed to a deadly dose of VX will swiftly lose consciousness before the horror of convulsions, paralysis, and respiratory failure are experienced. The other piece of good news is that, if the victim isn’t killed, he or she will probably recover completely.

VX gas is one of the most dangerous chemicals ever created. Fortunately, using it is a double edge sword. The same wind used to disperse the agent can suddenly change and blow the chemical back on the aggressors. It is also difficult to use in the field because VX needs to be ‘fresh’. The ‘freshness’ challenge, however, drove the development of binary weapons, where the last ingredient is added as the weapon is in the air on its way to a target. The last issue is strategic. If a country decides to unleash VX against another, the recipient country is likely to morph into a raging monster and launch everything it has, including nuclear weapons at the aggressor. Hum-mm, thank goodness for sobering thoughts.

GB, also called Sarin, is another super-pesticide that was actually developed in Germany in 1938 for use as a bug killer. Where VX is very viscous, GB is highly volatile but it kills in a similar fashion. GB’s good news is that its volatility means it does not hang around very long after an attack. Unlike VX, GB could be released into the water supply adding another dimension to its tactical uses. Strategically, GB carries the same liability as VX. Isn’t it nice to know we are basically big bugs in the game of geo-politics?

As a Johnston Atoll newbie, I went through the indoctrination on nerve agents. My mask was fitted and calibrated using iso amyl acetate, a chemical that releases a pungent banana fragrance. Lists of symptoms were discussed during movies showing doctors rescuing exposed chimpanzees. Two syringes were provided. Each needle was to be plunged deep into my thigh, one following another at some interval of time, in the event I experienced more than two or three symptoms. The atropine and anti-convulsing potion in the syringe bought time in the event the nerve agents escaped containment.

Silly me! The mask, the syringes filled with atropine and an anti-convulsing medication were, primarily, a placebo. Oh yes, what of those chimpanzees brought back from death? They required an atropine injection directly into the heart, which is what a human would also require to survive even a little while.

Using chemical weapons and nerve agents is as immoral and dishonorable as using nuclear weapons. We say little about the people who coughed their lungs out and died as a result of mustard gas or convulsed to death in their own waste. Chemical agents will not feel real until, like the nuclear story, the populace can view the event or the aftermath. For the most part, the population is shielded from actually seeing the horror of chemical weapons by the government and a news media unwilling to deal with the righteous indignation that would follow. There are some pictures[3] but mostly chemical agent effects are masked in medical jargon and descriptive narrative.

I am pleased to have been among the thousands that supported the JACADS mission. I am glad those weapons have neutralized. I celebrate the destruction of the remaining chemical weapons. As always there is a but…The old ordnance deck is cleared for new ordnance arrival. After all, if chemical weapons are gone, why would the military pay researchers to isolate and preserve a bioscavenger to find and deactivate nerve agent in the blood?



[1] Vera Brittain; Testament of Youth; 1933;   Testament of Youth (Penguin Classics)

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Facts About VX;

[3] BBC news; Fourth death sentence for ‘Chemical Ali; 17 January 2010;


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